Glowing adjectives describe Purdue student leader, commencement responder

Inspiring teacher. Outstanding leader. Broad and deep in community involvement. Accomplished researcher and scholar. Those phrases are just a few of the many accolades that describe Matthew Pharris, a graduate student from Phoenix, Arizona, who served as the student responder for Purdue’s commencement Saturday (Aug. 3).
Matthew Pharris smiles broadly as he addresses the graduates as student responder during Purdue’s summer commencement Saturday (Aug 3.). Pharris, who carried many involvements while a student, received his doctoral degree in biomedical engineering.

“I was genuinely surprised and honored to be asked to speak,” Pharris said. “I love Purdue and am so excited to reflect on all my time here.”

His spent nine years in West Lafayette, where he earned both his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees in biomedical engineering from the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering.

Pharris is like many students – he has many favorite memories, ranging from favorite attending class to teaching Biomedical Engineering 256: Mathematical Models in Human Physiology.

 “I loved teaching lectures and exam review sessions where I would show students YouTube clips of medical TV shows and challenge them to explain characters’ symptoms,” he said. “The students really loved it!”

Of course, he also loved spending time with his friends and attending football games – including the 2018 upset of Ohio State at Ross-Ade Stadium.

“My best Purdue memory is when as an undergraduate I asked a professor to help with a research project in her lab. I will always remember how that professor, Tamara Kinzer-Ursem, gave me that vote of confidence and mentorship, which ultimately led me to join her lab years later as a graduate student,” Pharris said.

Kinzer-Ursem said he stood out from the beginning.

“As an undergraduate student, Matt was incredibly engaged, inside the classroom and out. He was one of those students who participated in class and stayed after to discuss the material - a real joy to have in the classroom,” said Kinzer-Ursem, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering. “It was then easy to see that he would do well as an undergraduate researcher and, indeed, he did do very well. When he came back to graduate school it was a great match. He and I worked very well together as a team. Matt really helped me build and grow the computational side of the lab. His work has spawned numerous new projects in the lab.”  

Pharris also became involved with Purdue Graduate Student Government, first as a department senator and then as chair.

“I really enjoyed the hard-hitting conversations PGSG would hold about all things relevant to graduate student life, from stipend levels to child care needs,” he said.

In addition to the technical knowledge and memories, Pharris says, Purdue taught him to be persistent.

“Persistence and resilience were key to balancing coursework and campus involvement, and without these honed traits my experiences beyond Purdue would have been very different,” he said.

He credits Kinzer-Ursem and Charles Babbs, a continuing lecturer and associate research scholar, both at Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering, for their support, encouragement and energy. He also credits Purdue President Mitch Daniels for freshness and creativity that Daniels brings to higher education.

Pharris is now working in a postdoctoral fellowship with AstraZeneca analyzing clinical trial data for predicting cardiovascular patient outcomes. He will remain active with Purdue through assisting Kinzer-Ursem’s research group, connecting with Washington, D.C., area alumni and returning for reunions at Homecoming.

“The best part of mentoring a student like Matt is that he takes the initiative to really expand his professional horizons,” Kinzer-Ursem said. “He chose a challenging project and had to learn a lot about neuroscience at the molecular level and then translate that knowledge into a dynamical systems analysis. He did an internship at U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory in order to learn new computational methods in artificial intelligence. I helped guide him along the way, but he really took ownership of his training and professional growth right from the start.”

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